La Grande Illusion.

My wife and I watched one of my favorite movies, Jean Renoir’s 1937 La Grande Illusion; it’s also one of the best war movies ever made, precisely because it doesn’t show any of the war itself, just its destructive effects on humanity. (As I’ve said elsewhere, even movies intended as anti-war tend to promote war simply because the battle scenes, however grueling, are also exciting.) The acting is excellent and the filmmaking superb; Renoir gets important ideas across simply and without pounding them in. (Alas, the commentary track by film historian Peter Cowie on the Criterion release, while acute about filmic virtues, is larded with historical errors verging on idiocy — Cowie thinks the Battle of Tannenberg was fought in Flanders and that the Bolshevik government could have been sending packages to Russian captives in 1916. I was reminded of Simon Winchester.)

But I’m not here to talk about filmic virtues, I’m here to talk about languages, which play a role here second only to the wild multilingualism of Godard’s Contempt (see this 2003 LH post). Renoir made the decision — unusual then as now — to have everyone talk in their own languages, and the interplay, especially of French and German, is an important plot element. When the main heroes of the movie, Lieutenant Maréchal (Jean Gabin) and Captain de Boëldieu (Pierre Fresnay), are shot down near the beginning of the movie by Captain von Rauffenstein (Erich von Stroheim), Rauffenstein apologizes in good though accented French for the inconvenience he’s caused them; then he and Boëldieu exchange reminiscences in English, a language only the two of them understand. Throughout the movie there is that tension between the shared nationality of the Frenchmen and the shared class background and interests of the aristocrats; Rauffenstein can’t understand why Boëldieu feels any fraternity with his low-class fellow officers (when he asks Boëldieu for his word of honor about something, the latter asks why he doesn’t do the same with the other officers, and Rauffenstein, with inimitable hauteur, says “The word of honor of a Rosenthal and a Maréchal?!”). And when Maréchal finds it strange that Boëldieu still uses vous rather than the informal tu with him after they’ve been cooped up together for weeks, the monocled Boëldieu says calmly “Je dis vous à ma mère et vous à ma femme” [I use vous with my mother and with my wife]. Different worlds…

When the French officers are transferred to another camp, they want to tell the incoming English prisoners about an escape tunnel they’ve been digging, but when Maréchal daringly defies the guards and dashes over to warn them, he can’t get the message across because he doesn’t speak English and the blitheringly genial Englishman he’s so urgently talking to doesn’t understand French (“Yes, thank you, my good chap…”). And there’s even a bit of Russian: when a large box arrives from Petrograd (marked with a large А for Александра, the Empress Alexandra — not Л for Lenin, Cowie!), everyone assumes it will contain luxury foodstuffs and vodka, so the Russians invite the Frenchmen to share the feast, but when opened its contents prove to be unexpectedly high-minded. “Книги!” [Books!] the appalled Russians shout, and set the box on fire to express their disgust.

When (spoiler!) Maréchal and Rosenthal make their escape, they wind up staying in the isolated house of a widowed German woman who treats them kindly and does not give them away when soldiers come knocking; Rosenthal, it turns out, speaks German, so he can communicate with her while Maréchal has to have her remarks translated — though he quickly comes to understand some words and phrases, having (as he says) more incentive than he had with the prison guards. And the very last line of the movie is in German: just as they are about to make it out of Germany, a patrol sees them and begins shooting, but then the officer in charge says to stop, because the fugitives have crossed over into neutral Switzerland — “Desto besser für sie” [So much the better for them]. A great ending to a great movie.


  1. Stuart Brown says

    A very great film indeed. On Boëldieu’s vouvoiement: who would he address with tu? Presumably, children and servants.

  2. Presumably.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    And God. Don’t forget God.

    (Also animals; and plants, perhaps, if he were that way inclined.)

  4. it’s interesting: an aristocratic egalitarian “vous” (“‘tu’ is an assertion of the other’s inferiority”) vs a sans-culotte egalitarian “tu” (“‘vous’ is an assertion of the impossibility of equality”).

  5. When I was a teenager, my parents gave me a VHS copy of La Grande Illusion as a gift. It wasn’t a bad present; by that time, The Bridge on the River Kwai had already cemented itself as my favorite film, and although I had not actually seen that many of them before I went to college, prisoner of war camp movies are still a favorite genre of mine. However, what was very strange was that my parents insisted that I had asked for La Grande Illusion, when, in fact, I had not even heard of it before I unwrapped the tape.

    In any case, it is a very strong movie. I have used it as an example of a quintessentially multilinguistic film many times. In order to follow the plot at all, in a showing without subtitles, the viewer would need to be know French and German. To fully understand the major plot points would also require English. To get all the jokes, as noted in the post, requires Russian as well. I also think that Renoir’s style as a director may have been strongly influenced by having grown up surrounded by many of the greatest painters of the day. His techniques—especially his framing of shots—often reminds me of Impressionist portraiture, although not so much his father’s work in particular.

    The quality of the commentary and other extras on Criterion Collection discs is extremely variable. I have no idea how they locate qualified contributors, but sometimes they find people who are really knowledgeable, and sometimes they absolutely do not. So it does not surprise me that their commentary track for La Grande Illusion was done by somebody who might have been intimately familiar with the film, but not with the historical milieu of World War I itself.

  6. I wonder if Renoir’s multilingual approach was partly a reaction to American films of European stories, where everyone just speaks English, e.g., Grand Hotel.

  7. @Stuart Brown: “…who would he address with tu? Presumably, children and servants.”

    Children below a certain age, possibly. Servants, unlikely. As rozele says, it’s an aristocratic egalitarian “vous.” I would add siblings and childhood friends.

    @David Eddyshaw: “And God. Don’t forget God.”

    Seigneur, ayez pitié de nous,
    Jésus-Christ, ayez pitié de nous.
    Jésus-Christ, écoutez-nous,
    Jésus-Christ, exaucez-nous.

    This comes from Poulenc’s Litanies (1936) – I assume the text is canonical and pretty old.

  8. David Eddyshaw says

    and other examples too numerous to mention.


    There may be a Catholic/Protestant thing confusing the issue to some extent. It also seems that the French make the issue more complicated than other Europeans do. (How like them …)

  9. If I recall correctly, one further language, Pindar’s archaic Greek, is alluded to but never spoken in the film.

    I have sometimes wondered whether there was something about the content (or language?) of Pindar’s odes that resonated thematically with what Renoir wanted to say with this film, or whether he just chose Pindar because the name can sound comical in French.

  10. David Eddyshaw says

    In Mooré, you pluralise both second and third person pronouns to show respect. The Mooré Bible consistently uses plural pronouns throughout for Jesus, somewhat discombobulatingly also putting them into the direct speech of people who are not represented as respecting him at all, like Pilate.

  11. If I recall correctly, one further language, Pindar’s archaic Greek, is alluded to but never spoken in the film.

    Yes indeed — a rather pathetic schlemiel has devoted his life to translating Pindar, and when Rauffenstein picks up one of his fat volumes and leafs through it he says “Le pauvre vieux Pindare…”

  12. @David Eddyshaw: “There may be a Catholic/Protestant thing confusing the issue to some extent.”

    Yes, to a great extent. All the old French Bibles were Protestant translations. I may be wrong but Boëldieu must have received his first commission before the first complete Catholic, Vatican-approved translation of the Bible into French appeared. To the extent he prayed to God in French, he would resort to the limited vernacular of church services and prayer books. Those used “vous” as a rule, even when addressing Jesus’s blood. The same applies to Abbot Crampon’s 1864 translation of the Gospels.

  13. PlasticPaddy says

    Looking at Der Stechlin (late 19C Prussian nobility), the usage was:
    friends: Sie with surname (without the von, i.e Rex, not von Rex) as address
    family: Du
    Older (or socially “higher”) male acquaintance: Sie with Herr + title/rank, e.g., Herr Major as address
    Servants: Du with surname as address
    You can find examples here.

  14. it’s interesting: an aristocratic egalitarian “vous” (“‘tu’ is an assertion of the other’s inferiority”) vs a sans-culotte egalitarian “tu” (“‘vous’ is an assertion of the impossibility of equality”).

    Sort of similar to the English judicial system and the Quakers.

  15. …address with tu? Presumably, children and servants.”…
    Children below a certain age, possibly. Servants, unlikely. As rozele says, it’s an aristocratic egalitarian “vous.” I would add siblings and childhood friends.

    Et les coups d’un soir? From around the 1:20:25 mark…

  16. Narmitaj says

    @Brett – “Renoir’s style as a director may have been strongly influenced by having grown up surrounded by many of the greatest painters of the day.”

    This may have been partly why it was one of the films we were shown at art college – “we” being Somerset 18-year olds doing a foundation course in art and design – though I must admit I remember little of the plot 44 years later. (We were also shown Klute, Rashomon, The Seventh Seal, Cocteau’s La Belle et la Bête, and Un Chien Andalou, which being short must have been in a double bill with something else).

  17. What is Klute doing in the pantheon of art movies?

  18. marie-lucie says

    “La grande Illusion”

    I saw the movie as a teen-ager and remember some of the scenes well, including the tu-vous one and the sequence of the two French soldiers befriended by the young German widow. She has a little girl called Lotte and the monolingual Frenchman learns to say “Lotte hat blauen Augen” (Lotte has blue eyes).

    “Tu vs Vous” (I may have made similar comments on this in past years)

    Here in English Canada I am acquainted with a French family with 5 Canadian born children. The father is from an aristocratic landed family who sold their inherited French properties (rural land not bringing enough income) and bought land in the Canadian prairies which was more productive, uprooting his family. The mother is also an expatriate but from a lower-level mixed French-English family. She says Tu to her children, who reciprocate, and the father does so now, but when they were small he followed the aristocratic tradition of addressing each of them with Vous so that they would learn this form of address first, as the default, and later keep using it to at least one of their parents – of course, the father in this case.

    There are still some quite ordinary francophone families in Québec where at least the father insists on being addressed as Vous..

    Servants: here my recollection is mostly a literary one. It seems to me that using Tu to a servant (unless that servant has been a beloved nanny who has been kept on by a noble family long after her charges have become adults and parents themselves) would nowadays considered in extremely bad taste. In the WWI period, i am not sure.

    Addressing God: In France there used to be a sharp distinction between uses by Catholics (using Vous as a sign of respect and awe for the Higher being) and Protestants (using Tu as a sign of closeness, probably influenced by English traditions – for instance, “Nearer my God to Thee” had already been translated as “Plus Près de Toi, mon Dieu” and used by both Christian branches). But during the 1960’s with the various reforms in the Catholic Church, addressing God as Tu became more popular. (Not being a churchgoer, I don’t know what the situation is nowadays).

  19. David Eddyshaw says

    I have knocked about with French-speaking churchgoers a fair bit, which is why I immediately thought of tu as applied to God; but (a) I’m a protestant myself, as were most of them, and (b) French-speaking Catholics I’ve known were evidently (in hindsight) the children of the 1960’s reforms. Most illuminating: thanks, Alex K and m-l.

  20. Here is part of the very memorable “Lotte hat blaue Augen” sequence, illustrating Renoir’s masterly framing. The characters are well posed, with the bannister on the left helping show off the upward angle from Marechal face to Lotte’s. Then, as Marechal carries Lotte to bed, there’s a short tracking shot, which ends with her bed framed by the doorway.

  21. Kate Bunting says

    Learning French in a British school in the 1960s, we too were taught ‘vous’ as the default, so that when I later spent time in a Francophone milieu I had to make a conscious effort at first to use ‘tu’ with other young people.

    Much earlier, I know, but I seem to remember something in ‘Les trois mousquetaires’ about the form of address d’Artagnan uses with his manservant Planchet (maybe he starts to call him ‘vous’ as a sign of a growing respect – it’s a long time since I read it).

  22. David Eddyshaw says

    It is interesting that the use of 2pl as a respectful 2sg is a good bit older in French than in English (in fact, WP cites suggestions that the earliest English uses were imitated from Norman French):

    Even the Authorised Version (already archaic in James VI’s day, admittedly) rarely does it, e.g.

    Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, answered and said to the king, O Nebuchadnezzar, we are not careful to answer thee in this matter.

    The (former) English habit of thou-ing God is of course a pious archaism rather than a sign of Protestant presumption. The New English Bible retained “thou/thee/thy” exclusively for God, against the inclination of most of the scholars involved, after objections that “you/your” would be disrespectful. On the other hand, tutoyering God in French seems to be either a horrid Anglicism or a sign of creeping theological Liberalism … harrumph! [What’s “harrumph” in French?]

  23. PlasticPaddy says

    I believe saying tu to God is a continuation of the habit of nos ancêtres les Gaulois (= our Welsh ancestors) greeting Caesar with tu, as several monographs by the noted scholars Goscinny and Uderzo prove.

  24. David Eddyshaw says

    This actually made me wonder how long the Welsh plural ch(w)i has been used as a respectful replacement for singular ti; I think it happened at about the same time as the equivalent development in English (though of course it didn’t go on to displace the 2sg form altogether, as in English.) Singular chwi doesn’t seem to happen in Middle Welsh, nor in the 1588 Bible (which, however, is probably even archaicker compared with contemporary Welsh than the AV is when compared with contemporary English):

    Sadrach, Mesach ac Abednego a attebasant ac a ddywedasant wrth y brenhin: Nebuchodonosor, nid ydym ni yn gofalu am atteb i ti yn y peth hyn.

    Does Modern Irish use 2pl for respectful 2sg?

  25. No, they did not borrow that perversion from the Sassenach. One of you is , more of you are sibh.

  26. marie-lucie says

    PP, great! “Les bandes dessinées” are a better source of colloquial speech than most other written material. More fun too.

    Another snippet:

    My father (born 1914) did not remember much from his English classes, but he had an exact memory of one teacher’s useful words: “Le pronom tu en anglais se dit “thou”, mais on ne l’emploie pas”.

  27. PETER CRANE says

    Something like 45 years ago, I took a date to see “Grand Illusion,” telling her that it was the greatest movie ever made. Afterwards I kicked myself, for having created such expectations. As we left the theater, I asked, “Did I oversell it?” She replied, “No, you undersold it.”

    The French and German aristocrats are, we are to understand, more like each other than they are to the men under them, notwithstanding that the Frenchman appreciates Rosenthal and Maréchal, the Jew and the plebeian. They have even patronized the same prostitute in Paris. They speak English when they don’t want the others around to understand them. It’s like a code between them.

    On the “tu” vs. “vous” — my great-grandmother, in Berlin, was married to a multi-millionaire, who died in 1899. The family was Jewish, not that that is really relevant. When the house was empty, she invited the servants to take the bedrooms downstairs, rather than the unheated garret rooms that were the norm for servants. (See “Upstairs Downstairs”.) She also addressed her servants as “Sie,” the German equivalent of “vous,” when the norm with servants (and children) was the familiar “Du.” At some point, a delegation of neighbors called on her, to complain that now their servants also wanted to be addressed with “Sie,” and asking her to change her ways. She politely declined.

    Oddly enough, what sent me to this blog was looking up Tolstoy’s story “Polikushka.” I can answer your question about the narrator listening to a speech in the House of Commons, because Tolstoy told my great-grandfather about this when he visited Tolstoy in 1898, I have the account on paper — well, the original is now in the Tolstoy archives, to which I donated it — but I have a copy, of course.

  28. PETER CRANE says

    Oh, a further thought about the film: there is not a single unsympathetic character in it . Of how many films can this be said?.

  29. John Cowan says

    even movies intended as anti-war tend to promote war simply because the battle scenes, however grueling, are also exciting

    You have indeed said this before, and last night a hopefully non-war-promoting plot came into my head. So here it is.

    We begin by hovering above a huge mass of trees stretching from horizon to horizon. Slowly, so as not to induce vertigo, we descend to just above tree level, and then cut to a view of the forest floor. It’s something between jungle (completely inaccessible without machetes) and tropical rainforest (completely open due to most light being blocked by the canopy).

    Here we see a group of weary and dirty people in uniform, perhaps 20-30 of them when the movie begins. They have packs on their backs, and one of them has a radio, but there are no obvious marks of rank. They are making their way in an arbitrary direction known as “forward” (someone has a compass, perhaps, but we don’t see that). And that’s most of the story: making their way forward during the (dim) daytime and sleeping at night. There is no usable ground water, so they are carrying water as well as rations.

    However, occasionally something does happen. Soldiers are bitten by insects with effects ranging from momentary pain to itches that must be scratched to immediate collapse. Sometimes one of the collapsed soldiers revives and the group continues, but there is no carrying of people too sick to walk, never mind the dead: this is too obviously a survival situation, though never a panic. Discipline seems to maintain itself naturally with few orders given, and unit cohesion remains strong. The dead are buried in shallow graves; the sick are left behind with their packs in an unspoken hope (which is never realized) that they can eventually recover enough to follow.

    Similarly, there is occasional gunfire, but the soldiers never see who is shooting at them, and when they return fire it never seems to have any effect. The same rough and ready triage is applied to the non-walking wounded. Later in the movie, some of the soldiers start shooting from time to time even when not under fire, but eventually this activity is abandoned as futile.

    During the nights, soldiers from time to time disappear or die, usually of disease. At first the disappearances are investigated in a cursory way, but this activity too is eventually abandoned.

    There is very little talking: there isn’t much to talk about, and loud voices may invite trouble, though there is no actual evidence of this. Occasionally the radio operator makes or receives a call, which is always unintelligible to us, and then he goes to tell one of the others, suggesting that though there isn’t formal rank, there is a pecking order of some sort. Of course, who has the radio and who receives the reports vary as people die and others take their roles. Sometimes orders are given over the radio in this fashion, but they vary from the relevant to the banal to the completely irrelevant to the utterly nonsensical. None of this contact with the outside world has any visible effect on anyone.

    And so it goes, day after day, night after night: no enemy in sight, but the numbers go on shrinking. One day when there are only three or four left, the sun sets and we fade from night to complete black, and the credits roll. Even there no character is identified by name, only as “Soldier 1”, “Soldier 2”, etc.

    My working title is “Sauve Qui Peut”, though I am very unlikely to ever take this further, so if anyone who reads this decides to write a script (unlikely) or make the movie (unlikelier), they have my permission to use, alter, fold, spindle, or mutilate this text.

  30. An excellent thought, but of course it would never get made. That’s the trouble with movies: they require an army (so to speak) of collaborators and millions of dollars (unless we’re talking about an indy art film that will be seen by dozens, none of whom will need anti-war messages). And in order to turn a profit, a movie is expected to have big stars and be exciting. For a war film, that means heroic action and lots of big booms.

  31. John Emerson says

    Never though of it this way before, but on the gender politics world “they” is the preferred 3rd person pronoun for someone who doesn’t want to affirm a gender identity. A neuter/plural 3rd person pronoun. New to English and hard to get used to, but not really any stranger than the polite plural “you”.

    One of my nieces has adopted “they”, and I’m getting used to thinking of them that way.

  32. Yes, that’s the analogy I use to win over those who object to that convenient usage.

  33. John Emerson says

    I think there’s a reason why war movies tend to be objectively pro-war. Movies are entertainment, no matter how serious the auteur, and no one would watch a movie made up of long boring episodes of great discomfort interspersed with brief moments of horror and pain.

    But wars are promoted as an exciting alternative boredom. I remember the promotion of military service in a small town in the Midwest, and it could be pretty appealing to bored HS grads living with their parents and going nowhere. This dynamic is there in the opening of the Good Soldier Schweik, where the bored, cynical Schweik volunteers for reasons unknown to himself .

    Returning (and not returning) soldiers and TV coverage gradually took the bloom off the rose, but it took a few years for the reality of the Vietnam War to become apparent.

  34. And then everybody moved on and forgot.

  35. (Except the vets, of course.)

  36. I don’t know how films like this can promote war.

  37. John Cowan says

    One of my nieces

    I think you mean “One of my sibling’s children”.

  38. January First-of-May says

    I think you mean “One of my sibling’s children”.

    I thought of the same thing! The word is nibling, I believe.
    OTOH, pronouns and gender do not necessarily have to match; if they’re (still?) a woman they can probably still be a niece.

    At a medium-large-scale family reunion today (eight people, including me, from about four or five branches of my family), I finally met a sister, having only previously known of brothers… a pun that doesn’t work in English at all, because the English name for her relation to me is the gender-neutral “second cousin”.

  39. John Emerson says

    At the moment when the niece adopted “they” , she was a niece. The next moment they weren’t. Dedekind cut or something like that.

  40. @John Emerson: You mean they were keeping it real?

  41. Lars Mathiesen says

    In my experience pronoun changes often go with changes in gender expression, but some people just go with they because they don’t like to be boxed in.

    (By the way, is some people actually a plural by traditional grammar?)

  42. David Eddyshaw says


  43. Why would it not be? It’s a plural expression in meaning, and “people” is a plural noun.

  44. Of course it is a plural, but I could imagine some incredibly bull-headed prescriptivist arguing otherwise—since people is a suppletive plural for person, and the older, singular sense of people still exists in English.

  45. It takes plural agreement (“give the people what they want.”) Same as fish and sheep (and sheeple). The US Declaration of Independence uses both the singular and the plural people with their distinct meanings.

  46. David Eddyshaw says

    Welsh pobl is singular, and mostly feminine despite its Latin original (y bobl gyffredin “the common people”), but it’s still picked up by plural pronouns in anaphora, even in very literary style. The 1588 Bible has plural agreement when the verb follows the subject in the “abnormal order”* e.g. A’r holl bobl a welsant “And all the people saw.”

    * So called because it’s the normal order. Obviously.

  47. Lars Mathiesen says

    Well, everybody construes as singular innit? So I thought I’d get me a native informer. (North Germanic having done away with number concord in verbs — literary Swedish last to cave — I have nothing to compare to even).

  48. David Marjanović says

    Welsh pobl is singular, and mostly feminine

    Like Spanish la gente, though that gets singular agreement mercilessly, to the point that native speakers routinely carry it over into other languages.

  49. @David M

    As is the Croatian word “puk”

    It seems that the Spanish (Castillan possibly) and the Croatian peoples are as one on this topic.


  50. J.W. Brewer says

    Late to this, but the relevant sense of “people” seems like it started as kind of a mass noun a la “cattle” and then (also like cattle) drifted into being reanalyzed as a defective count noun that lacked a singular form* (“plurale tantum”) with the rules for verb agreement shifting accordingly. In a single chapter of KJV’s Genesis you can find “cattle was” and “cattle were” about a dozen verses apart. It was apparently a time of transition in verb agreement …

  51. “We’re not the Judean People’s Front, they are! We’re the Judean Peoples’ Front.”

    Watched La Grande Illusion last night. Thanks for the recommendation.

  52. person>people is an incomplete suppletion, like few>less or wreak>wrought

  53. David Marjanović says

    Late to this, but the relevant sense of “people” seems like it started as kind of a mass noun a la “cattle” and then (also like cattle) drifted into being reanalyzed as a defective count noun that lacked a singular form* (“plurale tantum”) with the rules for verb agreement shifting accordingly.

    Or maybe it was influenced by a plurale tantum. German Leute is one after all; so is its Slavic cognate, to which Ukrainian has formed the singulative людина.

  54. Lars Mathiesen (he/him/his) says

    Danish and Swedish have folk: et/ett folk = ‘a people’. But for ‘a lot of people,’ Danish uses mange folk (count noun) against Swedish mycket folk (mass noun). (The word itself [now] belongs to the zero-plural neuter class, as seen, but the plural of the first sense is not very useful. You could say der bor mange folk i Afrika, but it would be so ambiguous between the senses that you wouldn’t. You’d say der bor mange folkeslag i Afrika or der bor mange mennesker i Afrika. I’m not sure what the Swedes do).

  55. John Cowan says

    We’re the Judean Peoples’ Front.

    Pretty inclusive of them: not only Philistines, but Dekapolitan Greeks (you know, where Jesus drove Legion into the pig-herd; no Israelite would keep pigs).

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